For the second time in seven years, a presidential election in Gabon has triggered violent unrest. Rich in oil, uranium and manganese, Gabon now faces a turbulent future. Incumbent president Ali Bongo’s narrow victory over opponent Jean Ping ignited the country’s main cities and forced a recount of the vote.
The crisis erupted when the candidate of the united opposition, 73-year-old Ping, declared himself the winner. Three days later Bongo, 57, endorsed the official result announced by the National Electoral Commission or Cénap. There were only 5,594 votes separating the two from a registered total of 627,805 voters.
In the main cities of Libreville and Port-Gentil, protesters erected roadblocks and set fire to the National Assembly. Within days there were at least three deaths. More than a thousand protesters and looters were arrested.
The international reaction was to call for peace and a recount of the votes. The United Nations and the European Union meanwhile encouraged Ping to agree to an official intervention of Gabon’s constitutional court. In the end, the court – an institution staffed by judges devoted to Ali Bongo – ruled that the incumbent was victorious with a slightly higher majority than first announced.
Nevertheless, things don’t look good for Bongo. He faced turmoil at the 2009 election, when his ability as a ruler was untested. In the current economic context in 2016, he has become a liability. Will his foreign supporters grow weary of his increasingly shaky hold on power?
In Gabon itself, it is not clear whether the elite who have been slighted by Bongo has enough popular backing to confront the heavily armed, well-organised president. Ordinary Gabonese face ruthless retaliation. Foreign observers reported that roadblocks obstructed the main roads in Libreville while fighter jets flew low over the city.
Yet Gabon, a nation that the Gabonese like to mock as “the country where nothing ever happens,” can always surprise.
The birth of a “soft” dictatorship
Since independence in 1960 Gabon has nurtured strong economic and diplomatic links with its former colonial ruler France. These enduring connections are an important part of today’s volatile situation. In 2009 then French president Nicolas Sarkozy made it known that he supported Ali Bongo’s candidacy. The choice, some said, was to ensure the former colonial power’s name would not be sullied by secret documents that former leader Omar Bongo had stacked at the presidential palace.
France is not the only Western democracy to back the Gabonese government. This is mostly because Gabon has remained a “soft” dictatorship based on popular politics of regional equilibrium and a fairly successful system of redistribution of national wealth. Both have spared the country from the bloody ethnic conflicts of its neighbours, and tempered the rapacity of the local political class.
Under Omar Bongo between 1967 and 2009, the contact between Gabonese politics and the electoral base was built on a flexible system of co-option called “union nationale” or national unity. This was initiated in the 1960s by the first president of Gabon, Léon Mba. A member of the Fang ethnic group and a shrewd opponent of the French colonial regime, Mba surrounded himself with cabinets composed of representatives of all the country’s ethnic groups and provinces.
Mba also singled out Omar Bongo, a young and indefatigable bureaucrat from a minority ethnic group (Teke) in eastern Gabon, as his heir apparent. When Omar Bongo succeeded Mba, he embraced “union nationale” and added new forms of political patronage towards opponents to his regime.
In a country of fewer than two million people where more than 50 different languages are spoken, the public was reassured by the fact that the only ethnic group with a relative demographic advantage, the Fang, would not be in a position to monopolise power to the detriment of others. The Fang make up approximately 35% of the population.
The second key to the political system’s longevity lies in the many channels through which largesse is redistributed. Even if the political elite siphons off the largest part of the national income, most of them keep feeding a pyramid of allies, dependants and voters with money, help and gifts in kind, especially during electoral campaigns.
Gabon is a rich country with a poor population. GDP per capita is one of the highest in Africa. Yet public education is broken and it daily water or electricity cuts are common. The majority of Gabonese people have no stable employment. Endemic economic insecurity has worsened since 2014 when the drop in oil prices dried up the country’s revenues.
Deprived of regular and equitable returns from mining and oil revenues, the Gabonese are highly dependent on the whims of a political class. This class presents itself as generous and ostentatious – a very popular political style in Gabon – while remaining in control of the national revenue.
Elections under tight control
It is also essential to understand the extent of control maintained by the state on electoral operations. The presidential election of 2016 is a perfect example of the government’s stranglehold:
The election date was announced only eight weeks before the vote,
Candidates had barely five weeks to submit their candidacies,
The official election campaign was restricted to within 14 days of the vote,
The 628,124 voter cards printed by government, and not the electoral body
The voter cards were distributed in a mere three weeks, and, last but not least
The Constitutional Court, the final arbiter on any dispute, is presided over by a former lover of Ali Bongo’s father.
The end of “national unity”
Gabonese often express rampant distrust and hatred of the president. Ali Bongo is nicknamed “the Devil”, and is seen as an intruder to traditional Gabonese politics. His coming to power in 2009 imposed a dynastic logic that broke from the political patronage and ethnic equilibrium nurtured in the 1960s.
By contrast, Ping’s slogan – loosely translated as “the right dosage” – gives a nod to the tradition of ethnic and national balance. Ping, moreover, is a seasoned politician who can boast international stature. He served as Secretary General of the African Union from 2008-2012. When his position was not renewed in 2012, Ping resented the lack of support from Ali Bongo.
But the odds against a radical change of power are considerable. The opposition in Gabon is historically weak, poorly organised, and ready to collude with those in power. Most opponents to the regime are technocrats, or known to be close to the Bongo family.
Against these odds, France and the EU did not take the risk of pressuring Bongo to quit and encouraging Ping to claim electoral victory. Yet their lukewarm reaction to Bongo’s swearing-in suggests that the regime is now in survival mode. Opportunities for a legal political change are perhaps now more real than ever.